Report by Melanie Keene and Jane Darcy
In late March, delegates gathered for the third annual conference of the British Society for Literature and Science in the magnificent surroundings of Keele Hall. Following previous successful meetings in Glasgow and Birmingham, over sixty participants, including plenary speakers, PhD students, professors, and poets, joined together to hear presentations on topics from computer-generated poetry to ‘lice-men and logarithms’, earthquakes and fairy-land.
In the opening plenary, Helen Small (Pembroke College, Oxford) went to the heart of the matter, setting the agenda for the rest of the conference: are the humanities and sciences still distinctly two cultures? The problem in the humanities, she pointed out, is its perceived irrelevance: could the answer lie in a coherent methodology which equated truthfulness with sincerity and accuracy? She asked whether literature is capable of giving a systematic account of science, exploring the question with revealing readings of poems by the immunologist, Miroslav Holub, and Nobel chemist Roald Hoffman.
The speakers in panel 4 explored ways in which eighteenth-century discoveries in natural philosophy shaped a number of literary texts. Darren Wagner (Saskatchewan) explored notions of pre-formation in Gulliver’s Travels. Greg Lynall (Liverpool) put a persuasive case for Richard Bentley’s 1693 ‘physico-logical’ sermons attacking atheism as the motor for Swift’s satire in A Tale of a Tub. Sam George (Hertfordshire) considered the writings of women botanists that tempered the account of botanical promiscuity in Erasmus Darwin’s Loves of the Plants.
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